The debate over the benefits or negative impact of competitive sport in education is one that can polarise opinion. In my own experience working for ColegauCymru / CollegesWales on projects that deal with inactive young people, particularly female learners, we very often steer away from competitive sport and focus on talk about physical and fitness based activity, going as far as to avoid using the word “Sport” in some cases. Why? The reason being that we are attempting to re-engage learners who may have had a negative experience of sport in school or college and to avoid them running (or rather walking to the hills) at first contact. While this is an important area of development it is also important not to pigeon hole “competition” and “sport” into too small a box.
The annual Welsh Colleges Sport regional competition held recently in Cardiff between the 7th / 8th November provided so many examples of the benefits of competitive sport in FE, including some less obvious ones, that I felt it was worth looking at the arguments for and against in more detail.
The competition itself saw over 800 FE students from 20 College campuses across Wales visiting Cardiff to participate in eight different types of sport with the winners heading to the AoC Sport national championships in Nottingham in April 2018. So what is different about this to any other competition? Isn’t it just providing more competition for those already playing regularly?
A fair question, but in most cases the Welsh Colleges Sport competition last week has some further underlying benefits for those involved as we welcome a range of abilities which is different to the norm.
Partnerships – the two day competition involved 13 FE colleges, ColegauCymru, AoCSport, Cardiff Metropolitan University, Welsh Netball, Sport Wales, Welsh Squash and Racquetball, University of South Wales, Young Ambassadors Cymru, Cricket Wales, Glamorgan Cricket, FAW trust, Hockey Wales and Basketball Wales. All working together to create new opportunities. The networking benefits alone from connecting staff, learners and various other staff has a value that would run into thousands of pounds in terms of travel, meetings and events. However, this benefit works as a result of competitive sport. Very often, these initial contacts can lead to new projects linked to community sport, FE, and increased exit routes for FE learners into employment.
HE Students (in many cases who were also former FE learners) were used to referee and coordinate competitions reducing costs and developing employability skills in the process, agreed it happens already but this week alone saw more than 25 HE students supporting in a variety of roles. As an indirect link those colleges looking to develop new sports teams are often turning to partnerships with HE and interns to support their competitive programmes, it was also interesting to see the number of Elite sports people who have recently progressed from HE student to employment in Colleges as coaches and development officers.
Sporting Pathways – many of the students competing would not be considered “elite” in the purest sense of the word. For some, taking part in recreational activity in college has led them on to compete and enjoy new social experiences. Basketball is a great example of this – over 140 players participating, with no colleges in Wales currently providing “academies” and no other regular formal competitions during the year. The Basketball competition included a high percentage of students from non – sporty subjects and a high number of student from BME backgrounds.
Increasing participation – Seeing 70 + students playing Cricket at the SWALEC stadium on a morning where most people were scraping frost off their car windows. The Indoor 24 version of the game provides students with an opportunity to play anytime of the year in mixed teams with no expensive equipment. There is a real struggle in some areas to retain young people in the game once they leave school. Indoor 24 is competitive but in a non – traditional format that keeps players engaged, can be played almost anywhere in less than half an hour per game for a very cost – simple really but potentially the basis for something on a wider scale.
Learner experience – Facilities provided through partnership included some of the best in the UK with FE students getting the chance to play at the venues used by Cardiff City, Celtic Dragons, Glamorgan Cricket and the new Archers Arena at Cardiff Met. What is not obvious is that for many involved they would not get this experience without this competition, some starting in the early hours of the morning from rural areas to reach college before a 4-5 hour journey to the event. This in itself does not sound like a great experience but for many it is a journey that opens their eyes to opportunities in higher education, employment and new friendships.
A final question that often gets raised is what about those who do not win anything…..?? This competition can see people travelling a long way to compete against more established teams with little hope of winning. It can also see someone who is competitive at a regional level going to the national championships and to put it bluntly getting thrashed in every game. Generally, when we ask colleges and learners if we should create two tier competitions, withdraw players from the nationals or even stop certain competitions the response is a categorical NO. As the learners “enjoy the experience”, it is probably true that most of them do not enjoy losing, but the experience of competing with their friends, maybe making some new ones in the process and the opportunity to see new places and opportunities are outweighing the negative.
To summarise, taking part in competitive sport in FE is providing learners from a wide range of courses with opportunities they may not have had otherwise. Some of these experiences are sporting but can also lead to volunteering and employment for both non-elite and elite sports people. There is a social benefit for learners, staff and other organisations linking up FE with other sectors through competitive sport and potentially a knock on effect developing new pathways from recreation to competition.
I cannot wait to see what next year’s competition brings….